(CIVILIZATION on the NORTH CHINA PLAIN – continued)
By around 1500 BCE, give or take a century or so, the Shang dynasty unified people along the North China Plain, building an empire in much the same way as other conquerors: turning a local king into a subservient ally free to manage local matters and by taxing the conquered. A Shang emperor was chief priest, and he had an administrative bureaucracy, with councilors, lesser priests and diviners.
It was around 1300 BCE that the first known writing appeared in Shang civilization – writing that developed more than three thousand characters, partly pictorial and partly phonetic. This writing was done on plate-like portions of the bones of cattle or deer, on seashells and turtle shells and perhaps on wood. They were inscriptions concerned with predicting the future. By applying a pointed, heated rod to a bone or shell, the item cracked, and to which written symbol the crack traveled gave the answers to various questions: what the weather was going to be like, would there be flood, would a harvest succeed or fail, when might be the best time for hunting or fishing, as well as questions about illness or whether one should make a journey.
The people of Shang civilization appear to have had the same religious impulses as others. They saw nature as numerous gods using magic, gods called kuei-shen, a word for ghost or spirit. They had a god that they thought produced rain. They had a god of thunder and a god for each mountain, river and forest. They had a mother god of the sun, a moon goddess, and a god of the wind. Like others who worked the soil, they had a fertility god. They believed in a master god who had a palace in the center of heaven and who rewarded people for being virtuous. And their gods had faces that were more Asian in appearance than Western.
The priests of Shang civilization made sacrifices to their gods, attempting to bribe them, believing that the gods could exercise either benevolent or malevolent magic. The frequency of floods and other calamities led the people of Shang civilization to believe that some gods were good and others demonic. And they believed in an evil god who led travelers astray and devoured people.
The people of Shang civilization believed in an invisible heaven that people went to when they died. Shang emperors told their subjects that heaven was where the ancestors of Shang emperors dwelled. Aristocrats were concerned with their status and boasted about their ancestral roots. They kept records of their family tree, and they saw their ancestors as going back to gods who often took the form of animals – gods who became family symbols like the totems that were to be familiar in the Americas. The common people, on the other hand, had no surnames and no pedigree and did not participate in ancestor worship.
Aristocrats believed that humans had a spirit that was created at conception. They believed that this spirit both continued to reside in one's body after death and ascended to the invisible world where the spirits and the dead dwelled. Aristocrats believed that in this invisible world their ancestors resided in the court of the gods and had powers to help guide and assist their living descendants. Aristocrats saw their ancestors as needing nourishment. At grave sites they offered food and wine to their deceased family and ancestors – a ritual that males alone were allowed to perform, adding to the preference for the birth of a male into a family. They believed that if offerings to the dead were discontinued, the spirits of the dead would become lost and starving ghosts who, in revenge, might do evil. When an aristocrat wanted a special favor from an ancestor, he supplemented the offerings by sacrificing animals. And the Shang knew of human sacrifice. If an emperor wanted a special favor from the gods he might sacrifice a human.
Zhou emperors told those they had conquered that they, the Zhou, had ousted the ancestors of Shang emperors from heaven and that heaven was occupied by their supreme god, a god they called "The Lord on High," who, they said, had commanded the downfall of the Shang emperors. Like emperors in West Asia, Zhou emperors claimed that they ruled by divine right. They claimed that they represented on earth the "Lord on High" and that it was their duty to mediate with the Lord on High, to perform appropriate sacrifices and to maintain a proper relationship between heaven and their subjects. They claimed that any opposition to their rule was opposition to the will of heaven.
It was from the Zhou emperors that local lords received the right to act as a priest: to perform sacrifices, to have certain hymns sung and certain dances performed, the right to propitiate the gods of local mountains, streams and of the soil and crops. Meanwhile, local aristocrats continued to keep track of their ancestral heritage. They married with religious rites and sanctions while common folk continued to have no such marriages, no surnames or recorded ancestors. They merely lived together and were recognized as a couple by their neighbors.
As in India and West Asia, with time came a mixing of the religions of the conqueror and conquered. Zhou rulers admitted into their pantheon of gods some of the gods of Shang civilization. The worship of various gods from the Shang period continued, including gods of grain, rain and agriculture – one of whom was believed to have had a virgin birth. Among these gods was a god of the Yellow River who had the body of a fish but the face of a man.
The Sources of Chinese Tradition, vol.1, compiled by William de Bary, Chan and Watson, 1960
The Ageless Chinese, by Dun J. Li, 1978
China: a Macro History, by Ray Huang, 1990
"Shang Dynasty," Wikipedia
A site on ancient China authored by Jiang Yike, a postgraduate student in Traditional Chinese Medical Science whose hobby is Ancient Chinese Books.
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